Dallas — He calls it his “Texas play”—because the first draft was written at a writer’s retreat in the Hill Country. And despite the futurist setting of Tomorrow Comes Today, beginning a world-premiere run at Undermain Theatre this week, Gordon Dahlquist says he expects local audiences will recognize the “landscape” his characters describe.
Dahlquist is known most widely for a series of sci-fi/fantasy/steampunk novels that began with 2006’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters—set in a more than slightly “alt” version of Victorian Europe. But, as he tells TheaterJones, “theater came first.” He moved to New York in the late 1980s, and spent a good many years doing what he calls “scrappy downtown theater.” His cutting-edge works include Messalina and Delirium Palace (Evidence Room, Los Angeles); Babylon is Everywhere: A Court Masque (CiNE, New York); and The Secret Machine (Twilight Theatre Company, New York). Dahlquist is married to fellow playwright Anne Washburn (Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, which is on the 2014-15 season at Stage West) and lives, of course, in Brooklyn.
TheaterJones: How do all you Brooklyn-based writers keep from tripping over one another?
Gordon Dahlquist: (Laughs) It’s tricky; you’ll go into a coffee shop and see five writers you know—it’s very dense. Manhattan has become so expensive and strange, with so many stories about how apartments there are being bought by Russian oligarchs and staying vacant for 10 months of the year. I like Brooklyn; it’s a world where so many people are no longer working in offices. And [the writers] are out and about.
Without giving too much away, what would you like our readers to know about Tomorrow Come Today? It’s set in the future, and in a time of a kind of one percent/99 percent conflict.
It’s hard to talk in such a dry way about it, but the play is about wealth and equity, and climate change, and about the expanding gaps in technology. What does it mean to have a small number of people with progressively more advancing technology, and many other people without that? Though it doesn’t specify a time, the play begins probably 700 or 800 years in the future; it’s a situation where the climate has steadily worsened. Technology allows a wealthy stratum of people to live in supported environments with climate control and sustainable food, and all sorts of comforts. The most culturally important thing, though, is that they have the ability to transfer the “self” into successive bodies. So these people may look like they’re 22, but some of them are hundreds of years old.
And in the classic way that technology gets used for purposes that no one ever supposed—who knew iPhones would become the main tool for surveillance journalism?—things quickly go beyond simply thinking oh, when I get to be 60 or have health issues, I’ll change to a new body. No, if you could actually do this, people of course would start thinking: “I want to play tennis; I need a body that’s tall and strong.” It becomes more and more an aspect of consumption—and in the end, it also changes your idea of what a person is.
So the same “self” can be anyone, of any age or gender?
Yes, people can choose to be men, women, children even. But they [give up] many of the things we understand to define a human.
Only one life to live, for instance?
Yes, that’s right. They refer to themselves as “slow people,” not like the “fast people” living outside this supported environment—who have only one life. If you’re drinking in that world for 20 years, you have a bad liver and die. If you’re “on the inside” you can drink, but you don’t die. You just change bodies. The people on the outside are living in the shadow of what’s really happening to the planet.
This is certainly a utopian vision for the few—but would you classify it as a dystopia for the many?
Yes, absolutely. Science-fiction always is some sort of metaphoric grappling about what’s happening now, the same issues pushed [into the future]. The first two acts of the play push the sense of that society, that it’s a steadily shrinking life raft, and it all gets pushed to a breaking point for some of the characters. In the third act—not to give anything away—there’s a radical change, taking those ideas and circumstances and plopping them into our present world.
One of the really interesting things to me theatrically is that the two main characters are each played by three different people—both men and women. So the notion of what character means, in life and in theater, is very different.
There’s so much on this subject in films right now—riffs on future or alternate worlds, often in the wake of environmental/social breakdowns.
Yes, I think it’s a burning topic, particularly for young people—much in the way the no-nukes movement of the Seventies or the anti-war movements of the Sixties was. The odd thing, though, is that while there are so many popular films and novels that take these issues of climate and wealth and equity as real “givens” in talking about the world and the future, our government and the media are several steps behind. The government, because of lobbyists, can barely have a conversation about how, maybe, we might want to deal with climate change. At the same time, there are $100-million-dollar blockbusters every year where the climate is just completely screwed and we’re living in a desert 200 years from now.
There have been some notable exceptions, but why is this kind of speculative, futurist, sci-fi subject not handled very often in live theater?
I live and work in New York, and there’s tons of experimental theater, certainly, but it’s always true that you’ll find much weirder stuff at the movies than onstage. Theater audiences are older, respectable, educated, and there’s a reticence about [sci-fi and fantasy] as genre stuff—and a sense still, perhaps, that it’s a bit unseemly for theater. It’s a feeling that’s very much at odds with the rest of the culture, which is very engaged by novels and movies like Cloud Atlas or the Hunger Games series. And too, ticket prices for off-Broadway shows can cost $35 or more, unless you get a deal, or know somebody. Theaters would love to get younger audiences in the seats, but it’s hard to count on that.
How did you connect with Undermain?
Katherine [Owens] and Bruce [DuBose] found me, but I’ve known about Undermain for ages, and have known many playwrights they’ve produced, either more recently with Young Jean Lee, or with writers who made their bones there: Len Jenkin, Mac Wellman, Jeff Jones, Eric Ehn—writers who’ve been in New York for a long time and are real groundbreakers. There isn’t actually any theater I can think of besides Undermain with such a long track record of being interested in that kind of work—in the overlap of language theater and political theater, and often theater that’s more playful formally.
And Tomorrow Come Today struck a chord with them. It’s exciting, because I’ve heard from other writers about theaters who say, yes, we really want to do your play, but we want this part and this part and this part to change. I did a very quick rewrite, but the play hasn’t changed much. And it’s great to work with a company—to watch all these relationships, people who’ve worked for a long time with one another, and who swap around. In this production, Bruce is doing the very intricate sound design.
I was here for the first week of rehearsals, and we had a few days around the table with the cast. It isn’t that different from doing a play about Marie Antoinette or any other historical subject, really. The actors have to find the right body language and postures; you have to talk about a world of entirely different etiquette, where class means this, and power means that. It’s really getting everybody drenched in the same world.
So the community at the theater is really gratifying, and it’s great to see a bunch of Texas actors at work who are all new to me. The play was written in Texas, in fact; I was at a writer’s retreat down in the Hill Country, very beautiful, and I wrote [the first draft] on a 10-day stay there. So, I refer to it as “the Texas play.” The imagery of that part of the country is all through the play, too—so much of the natural world that’s referenced comes out of that Hill Country landscape.
So it’s not a hermetically sealed “indoor” sort of future play?
No, not at all—it’s very much in the context of the natural world, even when scenes are set indoors.
Were you a playwright in the making from the start—or did you always intend to ping-pong between writing books and plays?
I went to grad school in playwriting, and spent 15 or more years doing exactly that, a lot of very scrappy New York downtown theater. I had a great long-term relationship with a Los Angeles company called the Evidence Room, which imploded after a time in the way theater companies sometimes do.
So in 2004, I very self-consciously took a break from theater for a year, and started writing something that was clearly not a play. I was lucky enough to sell the novel [The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters], and so I branched into that for a while. But theater came first. Playwriting is how I learned to write; the ways you think about writing a play runs through the way I write prose. In a play you’re telling a much larger story through what people actually say, which is a little like using charcoal to draw something. With a novel you can write what they’re saying, what they’re thinking, what it looks like. Suddenly you have 15 colors of paint—not that you necessarily should use all those colors, but you could. I definitely write through dialogue, and that definitely comes from the theater.
You went to Reed College in Portland, not a name most people here know, probably—but it has a very different academic style from most colleges. Did Reed spark your writing career somehow?
It’s a very different kind of education and a very cool place—if it’s right for you. About a quarter of the freshman class leaves every year. It’s a tricky school, but great—and it totally made me who I am. In the classic old liberal arts school way, it teaches you things, but more than that, it teaches you how to learn, how to be critical and ask questions, and when I went to an Ivy League grad school I was really struck by the degree to which nobody wanted to ask questions. I’ve been very grateful Reed gave me that habit of being curious and critical, and not locking things down. It was really formative for me.
And I’m glad I went to a small college in a small city. You can always GO to New York, but I think if I’d begun there, I would have been very distracted by the city itself. Reed sent me into myself, and that’s why and when I started to write.